Saturday, June 30, 2012

Wartime diary

The small brown notebook, a diary I kept for only four months beginning in November 1958, has been with me for fifty-three years, faithfully traveling along with some family pictures and a gym tee-shirt from grammar school.

I wrote it when I had just turned eleven years old, but had never looked at it again.  I'm not sure why. Fear I would find some awful tidbits about my life? Embarrassment at the silly preoccupations that consume a child's mind?

Indeed, a small but serious-looking warning on the cover says: "DO NOT OPEN. PRIVATE."

I finally read it a few days ago; it took all of fifteen minutes. The entries are written in a labored, Palmer-method handwriting, supplemented occasionally with doodling, and even some artwork marking Castro's triumph on New Year's Day 1959.

The Jan. 1, 1959 entry in my diary, quite a cross-cultural creation
featuring a snow man and a Cuban flag, along with the headline,
"Year of the Liberation."
There were no revelations I needed to worry about. 

It seems I was a rather lonesome kid who enjoyed rollerskating and flying kites my father helped me make, and hated going to Mass and conjured every possible excuse to avoid going to church.

I quarreled a lot with my mother and loved participating in my dad's tinkerings with the family car.

One entry reported that a classmate had hit the teacher, a Marist Brother with a fearsome temper, on the back of the head with a balled-up piece of paper. I thought that was hilarious.

On Three Kings Day, when we received our Christmas gifts, I got an Erector set that even had a small battery-driven motor. It was a major hit.

But most interesting are the diary entries leading up to the battle of Santa Clara, marking Batista's exit and Castro's arrival. They read like reports from an aspiring war correspondent, albeit one with the naive and awe-struck perspective--and occasional lapses in chronology--of an eleven-year-old.

December 5, 1958: My dad holds an unsuccessful vigil by the short-wave radio, trying to tune in the guerrilla's broadcasts, whose signal was weak and mercilessly jammed by the Batista government. The mere attempt to tune in the guerrillas, done hush-hush and late at night, is exciting even if most often barely one intelligible word comes through.

December 20: I gently remind my dad about my birthday on December 30.

December 23: My mom asks me to pray for peace in Cuba because she is scared. She's heard some short-wave report that Batista's air force had mustard gas bombs they are ready to use on the population and could cause a lot of damage.

December 24, Christmas Eve: The traditional Nochebuena dinner never happens. There is a general alarm among our neighbors, who are fleeing toward the center of the city for fear that the guerrillas, steadily creeping in from the countryside, might attract some fire from the army. [We lived a few miles outside of town]. There are troop movements along the Central Highway, a block from our house. A friend and I decide to go fly our kites anyway, which get all tangled and wrecked.

December 25 through 30: My family is living "de susto en susto,"--from one scare to the next--as the shooting escalates. A family who had stayed with us because our house was considered safer, leaves but then returns.

My eleventh birthday passes without any celebration though my parents promise me a gift even if it comes in August.

Sporadic shooting by Capiro Hill increases and turns into a major shoot-out. Early in the morning of December 27, government airplanes fly over our house and strafe targets on the road to the town of Camajuaní, behind Capiro Hill. [Che Guevara was leading this band of guerrillas].

Che Guevara Memorial: Contains his remains and
also memorializes, among other feats, his role
 in the battle of Santa Clara. 
Around midnight guerrillas knock on our back door and ask us to leave the house so they can get on the roof and target the highway patrol garrison about two blocks away. Our parents persuade them to use our neighbor's house. The neighbors, including two small children, are now staying with us.

Around midnight, dad hears noises coming from a house under construction right behind us: Men are climbing over the cement wall. My parents go to their bedroom and leave me alone in mine, something which seems to scare the shit out of me. I have a terrible urge to cough (I suffered from chronic breathing problems) but don't, for fear any noise might call attention.

The men jumping over the fence, whom my parents feared were government soldiers, turn out to be more guerrillas. I don't get a chance to see the mythical guerrillas because I was in my bedroom lying down as I was told. But later reports from my parents indicate one of the guerrillas has long, wavy blonde hair, almost like a woman's.

Deafening gun fire from all sides increases, some of it aimed in our direction, including blasts from a tank parked at the highway patrol garrison.  The guerrillas return to ask for some water, and we tell them we'd forgotten to mention that garrison had been abandoned. (I know, I know: There are some inconsistencies in my reporting, but what do you expect when you get your war news from an eleven-year-old?)

My parents ask the Red Cross to evacuate us to no avail. The Red Cross is swamped with such requests. Fortunately our immediate neighborhood is not bombed by government planes.

All utilities are cut off and things get hairier, when more planes arrive and we're not sure what they'll attack. We're relieved when they direct their fire to Squadron 31 (not clear what that is).

We and the neighbors huddle in the bathroom, deemed to be a safe spot presumably because it has only one small window.

The army's armored train at the foot of Capiro Hill is derailed by the guerrillas. English-made (?) planes flying overhead fire rocket-bombs that look like fireworks.

The last news report for 1958 just says that there is shooting and bombings coming from all directions, but mostly aimed at the city center.

January 2, 1959: I thank God that the evil dictator Batista had left the island. Mass desertions by government troops apparently sealed his fate. My dad takes me to see the derailed armored train and I report that everything around it seems to have been bombed and destroyed.

January 3: My dad drives me on a reconnoitering tour to examine the damage to houses and other buildings in town. I complain that people in Havana now are singing the praises of Castro even though all the fighting took place in the interior of the island.

January 4: We drive to my grandmother's house in the southern port of Cienfuegos but the electricity goes out.

I soldiered on with my diary--by candlelight.

*****

Next and last Cuba blog: A chat with the old guerrilla now living my former house in Santa Clara. 


For a slideshow of Havana, go here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/alcuban/sets/72157630114503074/show/













Thursday, June 21, 2012

Going home to my memories

'Going home' is one of the most durable dramatic themes, going back to the Prodigal Son, and from there weaving its way through countless poems, stories, songs, TV shows and movies. Toni Morrison's latest novel, "Home," deals with an African-American veteran returning to Lotus, Georgia, the segregated hamlet where he grew up and which he regards as "the worst place in the world."

The best-known vehicle for this theme, though, has to be Thomas Wolfe's 1940 novel, "You Can't Go Home Again": "You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood...back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame...back home to places in the country, back home to the old systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time--back home to the escapes of Time and Memory."

My own going home story about a month ago, to my childhood home in Santa Clara, actually was my second visit since leaving Cuba in 1962. I'd stopped at our family shrine in 1998 while in Cuba writing about John Paul II's historic visit to the island


The elderly and frail pope's supersonic schedule only allowed me two days in Santa Clara, barely enough time to meet the new occupants. Occupants, hell: They owned the place even though they didn't buy it. In 1965, as a condition for getting their exit visas, my parents had to surrender the house and all its contents to the government.  

View of my hometown of Santa Clara, from atop the Capiro Hill.
That brief and tense visit rattled me deeply. I can't remember much of it except I was nervous, stammering, as if I were stepping on alien ground, which in a sense I was. I didn't know whether the new residents would answer the door or talk to me, or react with their own anxiety attack about my coming back, to perhaps attempt to reclaim the house where I grew up until age 14. Confronted with unknown scenarios I tend to focus on the direst. 

My late dad harbored bitter Cuban-exile fantasies of "going back to Cuba, machete in hand, to kill communists" and take back what was rightfully ours. I would react to his angry talk with a faint nod and an understanding smile. I understood his rage, futile though it was.

Fact is that even if the present regime were to flip over next week, a rewinding of the video to life before Castro, pre-1959, is not going to happen. Most the homes and small businesses are never going to reconnect with the previous owners; any attempt at wholesale evictions and repossessions would push the country into chaos. Though older generations of Cuban exiles in South Florida have not reconciled with that reality, after fifty-some years what is gone is indeed gone.  

Surely no one needs to worry about my wielding a machete, much less attempting to take back our former home, my dad's printing shop and stationery store (also confiscated by the government and converted into a food distribution warehouse), or anything else in Cuba--except my memories.

The family I found in my former home in 1998 belonged to the Cuban military, the Revolutionary Armed Forces, which I'm sure is why they got the house, although I don't know when or if someone had it before them.

The husband was an officer whose rank I don't remember, but he must have done something notable enough to merit a free house. They were in their forties and at first reacted to me as one would to a frightful apparition. I explained haltingly that I was visiting from the U.S. and simply wanted to see my old home, just out of curiosity.

I was careful not to take any photos or notes inside, lest the new owners think I was taking an inventory of sorts, a prelude to eviction proceedings. They finally offered me a cup of coffee and we sat down, uneasily, on the homely furniture now decorating my living room. But the encounter never developed into any kind of heart-opening talk. I don't remember much of what we chatted about.

The house, a very modest affair even in the best of times, was relatively well maintained except for a huge palm tree growing incongruously in the front yard and a clumsy, ten-foot addition at the rear of the garage. The addition truncated the short end of an L-shaped terrace around which the house was built and one of its most attractive features. On that space my mother had planted an almond tree, later the home of a cantankerous, foul-mouthed parrot that passed the time systematically snipping off the leaves right at the stem. The tree and the parrot were long gone by 1998.

A four-foot-tall wrought-iron fence that separated the house from the street had disappeared too.  Amazingly, a set of white, wrought-iron rocking chairs were still in place on the terrace, where my family had left them. I could imagine the chairs swaying rhythmically during Cuba's hot, muggy evenings while discreetly monitoring the quotidian history of the house and its occupants. 

Though hardly a historic landmark, my house--there I go again with that possessive--witnessed key moments of revolutionary history. The final and decisive battle against dictator Fulgencio Batista by bearded guerrillas creeping down ant-like from the hills took place in Santa Clara during the last few days of 1958, and within sight, certainly earshot, of our home, where we huddled during the entire ordeal.

Monument atop Capiro Hill, commemorating the decisive
1958 battle against the forces of dictator Fulgencio Batista
 by the rebel guerrillas.  That's my partner Stew on the left. 
The Central Highway, which at that time traversed the entire length of the island, was about a block away. On the other side of the highway was an open field and about a half-mile beyond that a hillock called Loma del Capiro, with a railroad track running by the foot of it.

The gentle slopes of Capiro Hill made it ideal for the Cuban version of sledding, which called for long, curved pieces of the bark from the top of a palm tree, called yaguas, and on which we swooshed downhill. For a ten- or eleven-year old, it was the cheapest and headiest of thrills. I would race my bike too, down the many hillside dirt trails, which was far more dangerous and exciting and therefore more aggravating to my mom.

More important for an attacking force, Capiro Hill offered a panoramic view of the entire city of Santa Clara, at the time one of six provincial capitals and one of the few remaining dominoes keeping the rebels from reaching Havana.  


Also on the Central Highway, two blocks away, there was a garrison of the highway patrol, whose menacing, helmeted members rode huge, Harley-type motorcycles, and who to this day are called caballitos, or "little horses" by Cubans. 


As the rebels neared the city around Christmastime, the Batista army reinforced the garrison of caballitos with tanks and other heavy equipment to block a possible run by the guerrillas to Santa Clara's heart. 

As the fighting intensified, Batista made a stupendous blunder, his last: He dispatched to Santa Clara an armored train filled with troops and ammunition to make one final stand. Rebel guerrillas, led by Ché Guevara, were now filtering down from the surrounding countryside in increasing numbers.

The train made it as far as the foot of Capiro Hill, where it was ambushed by the guerrillas using bulldozers to tear up the track. About 300 demoralized government soldiers aboard the train abjectly surrendered themselves and their load of armaments and ammunition. Within a day, Batista fled.

Cluster of apartment buildings on the outskirts of Santa Clara,
 designed in the soul-deadening nouveau Soviet style of architecture.
They reminded me of public housing projects in Chicago or New York. 
Our small but solid house, masonry all around, was strategically located at the cross point of the advancing guerrillas, the armored train and the reinforced highway patrol outpost. It became a shelter for a neighboring family and mine during three days of shooting and bombing.

The Battle of Santa Clara has been memorialized by Castro's historians as an epochal event even though by the standards of warfare it was but a footnote skirmish. Involved were only a few hundred demoralized army soldiers and not even half as many guerrillas, and it was over in four days. Still, I remember the frightened adults in our house trembling, as if it were the end of the world.

I thought it was exciting as hell.

****

Next blog: The Battle of Santa Clara as related in my diary and the first years of the revolution.  


To view a slideshow of photos I took in Trinidad, a beautiful colonial town in central Cuba, click on: 
http://www.flickr.com/photos/alcuban/sets/72157630072490077/show/











Monday, June 18, 2012

Revolutionary mechanics

If you think fixing car a is tricky racket, imagine it if you didn't have access to spare parts, manuals or even the proper tools. That's exactly the predicament car owners in Cuba face when their old '57 Oldsmobiles or '49 Plymouths cough, shudder and then glide to a stop with a sorrowful sigh.

Due to--in roughly equal parts--the fifty-plus-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba and the island's catatonic communist economy, the country has been unable to import many new cars or spare parts. Exceptions have been for vehicles for high government officials or others, like Olympic medalists, who have made outsize contributions to the country. But even these lucky few could only hope to get Ladas, Mukovitches and other Soviet brands about as exciting in design and performance as week-old borscht.

For some lucky reason, the East German Trabants, with their plastic bodies and two-stroke, two-cylinder engines never made it to Cuba.

The rest of the Cubans were left to deal with the herd of balky 1940s and 1950s American beasts. The ingenuity of these street mechanics is an inspiration. You can't help but wonder where this country would be if the all-controlling government were replaced by one that not only allowed--but encouraged--individual initiative and creativity. One that stopped restricting people at every turn and instead shouted: "Go at it folks! Let's get this country going!"

[In a comment to a previous blog, reader Joseph McClain mentioned "Yank Tanks," a 2002 documentary about how Cubans go about keeping these hogs running. I've ordered it from Netflix, but it hasn't arrived yet.]

Room to roam: Old American cars came with huge engine compartments
 that have facilitated transplants and other improvisations necessary to keep

 them running in Cuba. This is a 57 Chevy with the original in-line,
 six-cylinder engine. There's enough room under the hood for two engines.
New heart for an old timer: This old Packard's engine expired a long
time ago, but alas, there was still so much of it left to love. So the owner 

grafted a Russian truck diesel engine with a huge radiator that 
barely fits under the hood. Most fix-its are less heroic and involve
  custom-machined replacement parts, or components pilfered from
 Russian cars, which are more readily available. So you may 
have an engine and transmission from a Lada with the steering from 
a Moskovitch. Cannibalism of other American cars is less common 
because, remember, there are only so many available to begin with. 
Double transplant: This Cadillac received a diesel truck
engine and an air conditioner (right behind the grille). The 

owner swears it all works--most of the time, anyway. 
But stuff happens: The engine somehow sucked in some water
 when the driver plowed through an eighteen-inch-deep lagoon 

 after a thunderstorm. He had five friends push the Caddy to a dry spot on a
 side street to begin repairs. First order of business was to go fetch four bottles of

 rum to get the street mechanics' brain cells properly lubricated.
It looks as if someone also went to get a replacement head gasket. 
Party time: With nary a cross word or an argument, these six guys
 went at it and by late afternoon the Caddy was back on the road
--roaring and blowing thick, black smoke--presumably
until the next on-street mechanical drama.
 




Friday, June 15, 2012

Architectural Digest: 1958 Edition

Given that the last time I saw the southern port city Cienfuegos was fifty-one years ago, when I was thirteen years old, my memories of it proved to be amazingly vivid. 

I recalled that my maternal grandmother and my spinster aunt lived in a traditional home near El Prado, the town's main boulevard, and around the corner from a drugstore and the Pujol Funeral Home. When there was a big wake, I recall, the mourners' eerie hubbub wafted over the interior courtyards of the houses in the block and into my grandmother's living room.

Next door to my grandmother and aunt lived my uncle Arturo, with his wife and two children. Arturo and his wife América then moved to a custom-built house in Punta Gorda, a rather swanky neighborhood on a narrow finger of land that poked into Cienfuegos' huge harbor.

Even as a child the house had an impact on me. Almost a vision. Far out. Awesome. A roof jutting out to the sky in the shape of a "V," instead of the other way around like normal houses. Nothing like it in Cienfuegos, a beautiful but quite conventional city adorned mostly by colonial and European architecture.

In 1961 Cienfuegos briefly made the news because it's located roughly sixty miles east of the Bay of Pigs. Ten years later Cuba and the Soviet Union began building a nuclear power plant, later abandoned though its hulking concrete shell is still visible from Punta Gorda. Given the subsequent accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, the day that nuclear plant was abandoned was a lucky one for the 165,000 residents of Cienfuegos.

When we spotted Arturo's house during our visit three weeks ago it was more than a vision, almost a hallucination. Not only was the house still standing but it was intact, inside and out, including a 1957 Chevy sitting in the garage, also intact, with its unmistakable tail wings poking up, almost echoing the roofline of the house.



My uncle, who evidently was a guy of some means, in 1958 hired a Havana architect last-named Carbonell to build if not quite a mansion, certainly a luxurious home. All the furnishings inside were custom designed and crafted, in the modernist style of the era. Practically all of the house, inside and out, remains the same, lovingly--almost obsessively--maintained first by my uncle, who died 1992, and now by one of his grandsons, nicknamed Juanchi, and his wife Norma.

Yep, it's the original Westinghouse electric oven. It still works.  
All basic fixtures are original, including the Formica countertop,
with built-in electric stove burners. 

Come into my living room: Would you like a rum-and-coke?
The TV remotes are new but the rest
of this bedroom set is from 1958. 

The miracle of this house is that there are so few like it left in Cuba in such good condition.

Though a distinctive modernist residential style flourished Cuba during the 1950s, most of the owners fled the country following Castro's victory in 1959 and then the government confiscated all that real estate.

And as Cuba skidded from one economic crisis to another there was little money to spend on their upkeep much less restoration. Many of the homes were turned over to poor families, and fell victim to shabby subdivisions and further abuse.

I suspect there was also a certain element of schadenfreude and class warfare involved in the government's policy of neglect. Think of it: Houses formerly inhabited by the rich were now turned over the poor. Modernist homes became a symbol of the exploitative old days before Castro.

Considering Cuba's architectural genealogy--which consists mostly of colonial, inward-looking homes, with clay  roofs, elaborate floor tiling, central courtyards, and twenty- to thirty-foot-high ceilings, and later, European-derivative styles, including art-deco--the modernist style of the 1950s was a radical departure.

The 1950s homes were low-slung and flat roofed. Jalousie windows, sometimes made of glass slats, as in my uncle's home, dominated the exterior, almost inviting passersby to peek at the inside. Porches  dominated the facades. Instead of symmetrical details, these homes seemed to be constructed of blocs, often brightly painted and stacked next to each other like giant Lego pieces. Grids, round planter boxes, angled pillars and other whimsical details prevailed.

Some of this minimalist influence probably blew in from Europe and the less-is-more style of architect Mies van der Rohe and others, which also influenced tropical home design in Miami and South Florida.

Yet the Cuban houses to me somehow seemed distinctly Cuban.

My uncle's house has walls of glass jalousie windows at both ends, presumably to facilitate cross-ventilation. As wealthy as he may have been there was only one air conditioner, in the bedroom. The eaves are extra-wide to shield the interior from the scorching tropical sun and the torrential rains. The layout is utterly straightforward. The floors are white, foot-square glazed tiles.

These homes' simplicity and sturdy construction ultimately may be what saves them. They're all concrete, with little wood to rot or stone carvings to crumble. In Havana, many of the grander mansions also have been sold off as foreign embassies or housing for their personnel.

Still, the rampant weeds and the mold creeping up the walls of most of these houses, and the trashing and looting of their interiors, is a damn shame--regardless of how you may feel about Castro's revolution or the eternal conflict between the haves an have-nots.

More houses from Uncle Arturo's neighborhood



This house is next to my cousin's. It's holding its own though
not as meticulously maintained. 

This is a curious collection of six small houses in Cienfuegos,
each named for one of the provinces of Cuba at the time. 

This house is in Havana, around the corner from the home of
another set of relatives where we stayed, in the still-posh
neighborhood of Miramar. It was built, I was told,
by the wife of former dictator Fulgencio Batista.
It's been taken over by squatters and pretty much destroyed. 

These last two houses are in Santa Clara, across the street
from my own former home. Neither one has had even
a coat of paint since I left. 


###
Also check out this article by Gary Marx (no relation to Karl), a former colleague at The Chicago Tribune: http://www.utsandiego.com/uniontrib/20051016/news_1h16cuba.html

















Monday, June 11, 2012

Cuba's Age of Invention

Cubans have a knack for pithy descriptions, particularly when referring to economic problems.

So, resolver, or "to resolve" or "to make do" refers to the adaptation one makes to get around shortages or other life hurdles. Indeed, shortages, standing in line and rationing cards have been the only reliable staples during the 54 years since the revolution. Recipes are tinkered with by housewives to get around the lack of some ingredients. Neighbors may barter with each other; urbanites cop a rare chicken or a pork loin by dealing with a friend-of-friend who lives out in the countryside. Much of life is an improvisation.

After the thunderous collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union, Cuba's most generous protector and subsidizer (Cubans use the less technical description la teta rusa or "the Russian teat"), the country's economy experienced a depression that left some people starving. Lack of oil led to daily blackouts as long as twelve hours; even the most basic food staples disappeared from the market. Whatever money people had didn't buy them anything.

Desperate Cubans then shifted from resolver to inventar, from "making do" to "inventing."

Here's one image: One of my cousins, an engineer trained in Bulgaria and at that time a Communist Party faithful, had to pick lemons from the tree in her front yard in Havana and sell them on the street to help her family survive. Every Cuban who lived through the crisis has their own personal horror story.

But please don't call it "horror story" or "economic catastrophe," for the government quickly coined its own euphemism: El Período Especial  or "The Special Period."

So especial the situation became that the government was forced to embrace tourism as a source of foreign earnings, something it had shunned for fear that a flood of foreigners might upset Cuba's ideological Petri dish.

It also reinvented the country's currency to include a Cuban peso (CuP, pronounced "coop") and a  Convertible Cuban peso (CuC or "kook"). Even the U.S. dollar became legal tender for a while as the government opened up "dollar only" stores stocked with such extravagances as cooking oil and toilet paper. The dollars would come mainly from tourists or remittances from Cuban exiles in the U.S.

American dollars are no longer accepted as tender and must be converted into CuC's, but alas, you get only eighty-seven Cuban cents for every dollar. For one thing, government change houses impose a ten percent "penalty" on the sale of dollars, plus a conversion fee. Don't complain: Not long ago the penalty was twenty percent.

I never got a definitive explanation of this novel currency system. I read that the government felt it fair to penalize dollar exchanges as a tit-for-tat for the American embargo. Or that according to government financial wizards the dollar had fallen in value because the euro had increased.

Bottom line: Since neither CuC's nor CuP's are worth anything outside of Cuba, much less traded in international currency markets, the CuC is worth whatever the government says. Any further research on this point and you're wasting your breath and needlessly overheating your brain cells.

But as the government has invented currency policies, rank-and-file Cubans have come up with their own inventions to survive.

See, a Cuban peso is worth practically nothing--there are twenty-four CuP's to every CuC--yet the government pays its employees in CuPs. And given this is a centralized Communist economy, most everyone works for the government and gets paid in CuP's.

So my cousin Alfredo, the head of a pathology lab at a local hospital, earns about one thousand Cuban pesos a month or the equivalent of forty-one CuC's. Divide that by the dollar exchange rate invented by the government and it comes out to thirty-five dollars a month. Another cousin used to teach high school Chemistry for a monthly salary of seventeen dollars.

The government makes some allowances to soften the blow of such pitiful salaries. Everyone still gets a monthly food basket, though the quantities, quality and amounts of the items doled out are almost as absurd as the salaries. Health care is free, and so is all education. Some government-owned restaurants serve terrific meals at ridiculously low prices.

Yet the most notable and effective invention by the government, beginning about fifteen years ago, was to allow--oh, ever so grudgingly--little pockets of free enterprise where Cubans can earn valuable CuC's instead of worthless CuP's.

The government now permits people to rent a few rooms and serve food in their homes to tourists. My cousin the Chemistry teacher abandoned his job in favor of running a B&B for visiting foreigners. The guy who drove us around in Cuba, who has a college degree in telecommunications, has embraced taxi driving as a full-time career. Many young girls in Havana, mostly gorgeous mulatas, get their CuC's by romancing visiting Italians.

The slowly emerging private sector is hardly a capitalist orgy but a great leap forward from the communist monasticism the government imposed during the 1960s, when even the slightest trace of private enterprise was banned, down to shoe-shiners or independent plumbers. If caught, they'd be fined and the tools of their trade confiscated.

I'm happy to report that during our two-week stay in Cuba almost all of our penalized dollars went to private entrepreneurs--B&B's, family-owned restaurants, trinket salesmen and most of all our driver. It made for a relatively inexpensive vacation with some complete meals for as little as four dollars, and air-conditioned accommodations in private homes running between twenty and thirty-five dollars a night.

Then there's a cavernous black market where Cubans do their more seriously inventive dealing. One of my relatives heard there were shoes for sale at some address and when he arrived found a medical doctor who had become shoe salesman on the side to supplement his CuP's. Government-employed veterinarians will make house calls to treat your dachshund (for some reason one of Cuba's favorite breeds) but their fees are all payable in convertible pesos. In fact, most things are available as long as you bring CuC's.

The flow of merchandise falling off the back of government supply trucks also must be torrential. Lobsters, medicines, Calvin Klein underwear, cheap watches, spare parts for all your ancient appliances.

The monthly earnings of folks who for example rent rooms can add up to a rather comfortable living. But the millions living in the countryside, with no rooms to rent, meals to serve or bootleg merchandise to fence, don't enjoy such survival safety valves.

In effect, a class of haves and have-nots has emerged, apart from the top-level government bureaucrats and officials who had always been more equal than others.

Recently, the government acknowledged that the dual-currency system has turned into a macabre joke and promised to make reforms and corrections.

But in the meantime the germ of private enterprise is spreading rapidly among the ever-inventive Cubans. The government can snuff it at any time, of course, though that may not be in its favor: Entrepreneurs are bringing in dollars, euros and other real money from foreigners, and creating a lively niche within the otherwise catatonic socialist economy.

If allowed to continue, however, it might present the aging leadership with a real existential dilemma: Should it allow more private enterprise to encourage economic activity and defuse discontent, even at the risk of undermining the communist system that took so many years and blood to build?

Our B&B in the colonial town of Trinidad.

B&B in Santa Clara.

Havana flower vendor. 

Selling straw bags in Trinidad.

Shoe repairman waiting for shoes.

Bike taxi in Old Havana. 

On the street, cake for sale on one hand, CuC's on the other. 

"El Lobo," or "The Wolf", owner of a restaurant/music
 club in Cienfuegos. He was quite fond of his alleged
 resemblance to Mick Jagger. 

Four-table private restaurant in Trinidad. 

A hat maker. 

A baker. 

Mangoes awaiting customers.

Living-room pizzeria open for business.

A terrifically good and inexpensive private
restaurant in the countryside, near Cienfuegos. 

The living room of our B&B in Santa Clara.
Famous last words, seen at the Museum of the Revolution in Havana:
"Centralized planning is the way of life of the socialist society, its
 defining characteristic, and the point at which the conscience of
 man manages, at last, to synthesize and direct the
economy toward its goal, the full liberation of human
beings within the frame of a communist society."

Ernesto Ché Guevara



Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Name that relic!

You step out of the airport in Havana and its muggy tropical air hits you. Then as you head toward the city your attention shifts from the stifling heat to the roads and highways filled with impossibly old cars, most of them American from the 1940s and 1950s. 

If at first the landscape looks like a diorama at a car museum, it's not: It's real and alive, and every day folks on the island calmly ride these steel mastodons you thought had disappeared from the earth decades ago. 

Name that Car becomes your favorite pastime. Most common are Chevys from the 40s and 50s, followed by Fords. No surprise because those were among the most affordable Detroit offerings at the time. Then you spot some fancier Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs and Buicks, though not as frequently. Plymouths seem to have the most preposterous tail fins--garish and useless--though those on the 1957 Chevy Impalas were hard to top.

Keep looking and things get a little stranger. Here and there a Rambler appears, so homely and unreliable when new,  it's a miracle to see them on the street today--actually moving. Cuban mechanics and car painters must be geniuses.

Only a few Edsels and I couldn't photograph any. The most famous in Havana is a creamy-white convertible, supposedly in cherry shape inside and out. It's used mostly for weddings and we saw it gliding down Havana's oceanfront drive, festooned with balloons and carrying a delirious couple to or from their wedding. It was 1958 all over again.

One Packard, whose owner assured me was the same year and model--1951?--as the one in the first Godfather movie.

In the 1960s, Russian Ladas and Moskovitchs began showing up on Cuba's roads, and put the "b" in "basic car". The one we rode in for two weeks, a 1986 Moskovitch, had no seatbelts, never mind air bags or air conditioning. Unlike some small cars, like the new Volkswagen Crossfox, which seem small but are roomy inside, the Mosky was cramped everywhere, with my knees butting against the dashboard.

All the dials on the dashboard had long ago expired, except for the gas gauge. Only one windshield wiper worked. Coming back from Cienfuegos to Havana, a three-hour drive, was scary: The driver was angry about something and mum, and the car must have been barreling along at seventy-five miles per hour. Hit a rock, jam on the breaks or blow a tire and the Mosky and three of us will end up in the next province, I kept thinking.

Past the Ladas and Moskys, things really get exotic. We saw an enormous Soviet Chaika limousine, presumably carrying someone important from a distant former Soviet republic whose name ends in "stan." It glided past us regally before I could get my camera. A Chaika would not be used by a Russian guy or a Chinese diplomats, my driver explained. Those VIPs ride float-size Mercedes Benzes, just like their Cuban counterparts.

[For a look at a Chaika: http://www.flickr.com/photos/72620239@N05/6637361727  It's an amazing-looking machine.]

Stranger birds still were a Skoda (from the former Czechoslovakia), a Fiat Polski, Austin A40, and a British Vauxhall from the 1950s.

Often it's impossible to tell what you're looking at. It may be an American sedan with VW beetle lights, a truck converted into a bus, or some benighted beast with so much lumpy putty and paint on its body that it looks like a piece of pastry with wheels.

A masculine roar and a trail of black smoke tells you that that enormous Cadillac or Buick probably has been retrofitted with a diesel truck engine. In other cases, like my cousin's 1957 Chevrolet, the original on-line, six-cylinder motor is intact, sitting demurely in the middle of a huge and mostly empty engine compartment.

Ladas and Moskovitches are the most generous donors of body parts:  some cars will have a Lada engine and a Moskovitch transmission, but their puny motors can't nudge something like a 1957 Pontiac. That takes an appropriately mammoth engine.

If you are ever in Cuba don't be afraid to ask owners about their cars. Cubans will talk about practically anything to anyone, but most of all about their cars. They'll let you get inside for a look at the dashboard and open up the hood to proudly show you the Frankenstein-like miracles it requires to keep that 60-year-old monster rolling.  I wish we had had more time.

More about Cuban car mechanics in another blog.

Below is a sampling of the cars we saw in Cuba, with some identifications that we made. If you know more or have better clues than me feel free to post your corrections in the comments box at the end.



A 1955 Chevy Bel Air, I believe. It has been lovingly restored though
the paint on the spokes of the steering wheel didn't look right.

1958 Plymouth 
A 1948 Buick Eight Roadmaster

1957 Plymouth Belvedere

A cuddly Skoda from the former Czechoslovakia. Year?
A Russian Volga 1974 GAZ. The blue plates mean 
it's a government car. 
A Russian Lada.
This Cadillac hearse at the Havana cemetery was so beat up
and tired it should have been buried twenty years ago
For bonus points: I think this is an Austin A40,
year unknown. 
Mystery car, particularly since the grille is not original.

This guy had so much paint and putty on it must
have weighed two tons. 
Serious bonus points: A Fiat Polski, model year unknown. 
Old fat 1953 Buick.  

Consuls were built by Ford in Britain, and as far as
I can tell this is a 1959 or 1960.
The ghost of a Chrysler Imperial? Not so: 
It's a 1954 Mercury Monterey

1954 Chevrolet

1954 Pontiac

1958 Chevrolet 

1956 Chevy

1950 Buick
1957 Ford


This is a triumph of function over form. 
A 1940ish Dodge?
This Caddy has been through some rough times. 
1957 Chevy for you. 

Huh? 
A 1950 Ford
That's right! A 1952 Vauxhall, garaged in the home in Santa Clara
where I grew up.
 
A brand-new, Chinese-made Geely, which has
one of the worst safety records of any car on
the planet. On a front-end crash it crumples
like someone stepping on an aluminum soda can.
Check out this youtube video:
 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcBoVgyKjH8&feature=related   
Who can forget the tail of a 1959 Chevrolet?
The owner said this is a 1951 Packard similar to the
one used in the first Godfather movie. It's a Packard
alright; I don't know about the rest of it.
1958 Rambler


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